Bill Evans Project muzzle misfortune for triumph at Ronnie Scott’s

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When Bill Evans got the phone call from Mike Stern’s wife Leni the night before this supergroup’s whizz around Europe, he would have been expecting a last-minute logistical check; not the news that Mike had fallen in the street while hailing a taxi and broken several bones in both shoulders. Faced with the decision to cancel the tour or find a suitable sub at such late notice Bill decided to press on and Dean Brown and Bryan Baker – both stellar guitarists – were extracted from whatever they were doing and recruited to the cause for various dates. The right decision as it proved; this was an at-times electrifying gig, all the more impressive considering a tough journey from a remote part of Sardinia earlier in the day.

This was in many ways the ‘night of the sidemen’. Although Evans has been around the top of the sax tree for years, experimenting with fusing bluegrass with modern jazz and performing with Randy Brecker, Greg Allman and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, he is still hailed for his playing with Miles Davis in the early 1980s on seminal albums like We Want Miles and Star People. His exciting bluesy, in-your-face style, with a full-bodied tone across the range, rich with overtones and split harmonics, frequently brought the house down. His first solo, on soprano, during a fast-skidding adrenalin-fuelled Stern-style piece of post-bop funk was a masterpiece of chromaticism, in-and-out harmonics and slick timing – all with a remarkably luminous sound.

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On the subject of slick timing, this was a truly rare rhythm section in a club setting. Keith Carlock had just finished yet another tour with Steely Dan, while Darryl Jones (above) has been choice bassist for the Rolling Stones for 18 years after stints with Miles, Sting and Madonna. As used to playing in stadia as small clubs, they provided maximum insurance to Evans and Baker; a deep, powerful undercurrent of relentless rhythm punctuated with accents of jaw-dropping precision. This was remarkable given that Carlock had only just taken over the gig from Dennis Chambers.

In the circumstances it was clear the audience would be intrigued to hear young replacement guitarist Bryan Baker. He cites Sonic Youth and bands like Pantera as influences, as well as Ornette Coleman and Jimi Hendrix; Evans amusingly told us that he likes the idea of making the audience’s ‘faces melt’. Certainly his technique was astonishing; his sound rich, but what surprised me more than his wall-of-sound solo endings and departures into the avant-garde, were the inbetween glimpses of Bill Frisell-like chordal playing and an unusual desire to play at the low end of the instrument. His call-and-response passages with Evans on ‘Soulbop’ and ‘Cool Eddie’ were absorbing and even humorous. Baker is a wildly exciting player with great stage presence who commands attention; as the crowds of people around him spilling onto Frith Street afterwards testified.

An amiable bunch, the band were happy to talk to all-comers after the show, sharing stories of Miles and gigs past. Evans assured us that Mike Stern was making a good recovery and aims to be back on the road by the end of the year.

    Adam McCulloch
    Carl Hyde (photos)